What Snowboarding Teaches Us About Innovation

When I was only one year old there was a debate happening about the role of snowboarding in our culture and on our ski slopes. Check out this video from 1985.

The video ends with the reporter asking, “Do you see any compromise in the future at all?” The person representing skiing replies, “No. No. Skiing is becoming more and more popular and if these boards become more and more popular it’s going to be more hassles, more confrontations, so we’d just like to say, ‘we don’t want them at all.’”

It is fascinating to look back and see how innovation is often feared. Safety becomes a reoccurring theme whenever anyone steps up and challenges the status quo.

Think of two relatively new companies, Uber and Airbnb. How many of us ten years ago ever thought we’d get in a car to hitch a ride with a stranger that wasn’t driving a taxi? How many of us thought we’d stay over at some random persons personal house or apartment? Yet, these innovations challenged all the naysayers proclaiming, “No one would do that, it isn’t safe.” They found ways to do it, and in relatively safe ways. Even more, the market has spoken, we participated and continue to participate in these new ideas.

The same thing happened with snowboarding years ago. Based on this video it would’ve shocked nearly everyone, including the snowboarders, to get a glimpse into the future of snowboarding.

  • Snowboarding became an olympic sport in 1998 (just thirteen years after this video).

  • “Approximately 97% of all ski areas in North America and Europe allow snowboarding, and more than half have jumps, rails and half pipes.” (Wikipedia: Snowboarding)

  • In the 2010-2011 snowboarding season there were 8.2 million participants (NY TIMES)

  • Not to mention Shaun White is a household name.

Snowboarding is no longer the fresh new innovative thing. But we can learn from the rise of snowboarding and the ever present challenge to innovative new ideas. Three things you’ll likely hear one way or another.

1 - “YOUR IDEA WON’T WORK!”

As Taylor Swift says, “Haters gonna hate.” If you are doing anything new and worthwhile it will likely bring about those who are gonna hate on it. It doesn’t mean they are monsters or against you. It may just mean they haven’t caught the vision you have for where this thing is going. Maybe you are able to help them catch the vision and maybe not. It is my guess that the dude in the video wasn’t going to come around to the idea of snowboarding over hot cocoa with some snowboarders. Learn who your haters are, those who aren’t going to get it, and learn how to block them out. The mid to late adopters are the ones you want to share the vision with, even if they are apprehensive or against it initially. Apprehension is not shade. Getting these mid or late adopters in your corner makes a huge difference because once on board they are loyal and committed to the idea.

2 - “IT ISN’T SAFE!”

I am not sure what you are innovating. Maybe safety is a huge issue in your leadership lane and you really do have to consider this, but often it is an excuse to remain committed to the status quo. In my line of work safety is often labeled as remaining doctrinally sound or rooted in scripture. While I respect and understand these sentiments, there are also many innovations the church has experienced over 2,000 years that were considered heresy at the time of their inception. Many of those innovations are now considered proper doctrine and rooted in scripture, and even if they aren't, they are no longer questioned as legitimate. Your industry likely has a similar cyclical history. The cry for safety can often the enemy of innovation. No matter what innovation you’re working with, there is always an element of risk to anything new. So ask yourself, “Am I willing to take a risk to try a new approach and step into an innovative method?”

3 - “JUST WAIT, IT ISN’T THE RIGHT TIME YET!”

Change is going to happen. If you’ve caught the vision then don’t wait. We often desire tons of affirmation before we move on something that is risky. We want to make sure we got the roadmap all laid out before we start the car and begin moving. The problem with this is that innovative leadership is partly visionary and partly reactionary. When you are disrupting a market or a church system there is no way to know how your vision is going to be received. It will require a level of reactionary leadership as the environment shifts and changes. It could at times get more volatile, or you could be accepted, therefore your platform/market share elevated. These potential outcomes will require new approaches and methods. So don’t wait until you have the road map, because usually the path you lay out initially isn’t the one you will actually travel. Go for it. If you have an innovative vision for something new, put the car in drive and get moving, but keep looking forward and reacting to the change of scenery.

Snowboarding teaches us a lot about innovation. What are you learning about innovation?